Green Myth No. 2: It Doesn’t Improve Comfort or Really Perform

In my last article (March issue, page 16), I discussed the fallacy that green costs more than other types of construction. In this article, I will address the prevailing notion that green doesn’t improve comfort or perform as intended.

As with all emerging technologies and processes, there is a learning curve. Manufacturers spend time and money researching and testing products before bringing them to market. Even for things not considered green, there are hold-out periods during which we at Architectural Resource restrain from specifying products and systems until we are comfortable they will perform as promised. For us, that period typically is five years.

I completely believe the duration of the hold-out period for new products—green or otherwise—to perform should be inversely proportional to the architect’s/remodeler’s/designer’s eagerness to test his or her professional liability insurance’s ability to perform. I have set five years as the benchmark based on watching companies get into hot water within five years of introducing a new product.

But let’s admit it, green products and processes have had a bumpy start. A personal experience on my residence dealt with early-generation low-VOC paint. I am married to a nutritionist/complementary medicine health practitioner, and we are very sensitive to health and indoor environmental quality. I wanted to use the lowest VOC paint I could, so I selected a green paint manufacturer whose product line had been applied in hospital intensive-care units while the patients were in residence without any adverse effects. It sounded pretty good to me. Not so to our painter, who complained the entire time about the product’s poor coverage, poor blocking and tendency to bubble during application. We later added very poor durability and adhesion to the list as our ceiling paint job began delaminating in a matter of months. We eventually had to refinish the entire ceiling.

Early generation CFL and LED lamps are another terrific example. CFLs with poor performance and that generated the visual color-rendering appeal of a warehouse were the norm. One of my colleagues and I were just chatting about how flickering dimmable LED lamps had frustrated his client, leading to several callbacks and hours of troubleshooting.

The most financially damaging stories come from clients who, wanting to do the green thing, made a sizable investment in a geo-exchange heating and cooling system only to discover the performance and efficiency was far less than promised and, in some cases, failed to provide adequate heating. The culprit almost always was in neglecting the proper load calculations on the front end.

We all have some story to tell about green products not quite living up to expectations. But we have to remember that with green we really are talking about reinventing business as usual. In a recent conversation with Eden Bruckman, co-author of Living Building Challenge 2.0, we noted what we are doing in this field really has never been done before. We are blazing new trails with a complete paradigm shift in thinking involving process and product. No matter what new technology you name, there have always been hiccups. From early automobiles to early computer operating systems, there always has been a vetting process. So why should green building be any different?

I might argue the real question is why are we so intolerant of the natural bumps in the road with green. What is it about green that makes us have such high expectations for performance and allows us to have an overall negative impression because one product didn’t perform? Perhaps it’s because it is a paradigm shift in the way we are thinking about what we are doing in an industry that moves at glacial pace. We are naturally reluctant to change and for good reason: The margins at which we typically operate do not allow much wiggle room.

But I can now say the problems we encountered early on in green building and design have been addressed. We have no-VOC paints and finishes, dimmable LEDs, ultra-low-flow water fixtures and super-efficient mechanical systems. It just took a concerted effort to do the proper homework and find products with proven performance and reliable results.

For research that one can turn to, outside of the test of time, which is really the acid test, there are two leading paid-subscription-based industry resources: BuildingGreen’s Green Spec (Greenspec.Buildinggreen.com) and the Pharos Project Building Product Library (Pharosproject.net).

My firm’s research for green products is more rigorous than for conventional products because we are asking more of green products and our clients are expecting more of them, as well. Green-labeled products are by their very nature different by design from conventional products.

Oh, and regarding my colleague’s flickering LED lamps that caused the client callbacks, there was a note about needing to use compatible dimming switches in the fine print on the back of the packaging. Who would have guessed? Do your homework!

Michael Klement is principal of Architectural Resource LLC, Ann Arbor, Mich.

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